Q. I read an account of Sri Chaitanya written by a monk of Sri Ramakrishna order that gave me the impression that there may also be an Advaitic way of understanding Mahaprabhu’s teaching. This book contends that Mahaprabhu himself agreed with many key teachings of Sri Sankaracarya.
A. I am familiar with the Ramakrishna Mission’s tendency to depict Sri Caitanya as an Advaitin. I have read some of their material on this. However, their idea contradicts many facts and the entire following of Mahaprabhu in all of its branches and sub-branches. With all due respect to their order, in the interest of understanding the significance of Sri Caitanya we do ourselves a disservice when we hear about Mahaprabhu from those who are not his devotees.
Q. Sri Sankaracarya wrote in his Brahma sutra bhasya that a liberated jivatman does not become equal to Brahman, because the liberated jivatman does not have authority over creation. So he seems to agree with Vaisnavism in this regard. Can you comment?
A. In Adwaita Vedanta you cannot say the liberated jiva does not have authority over creation while Brahman does unless you are speaking about the jivanmukta as opposed to one who has attained videha mukti. The jivanmukta is still in the world until his prarabdha karma is finished. His position is not the same as one who has attained videha mukti. Videha mukti is final release. It is beyond the embodied stage of jivan mukti. In videha mukti the prarabdha karma of the jnani is finished, and thus his body as well. According to Advaita Vedanta, the jnani is only a “liberated jiva” in the stage of jivan mukti. In videha mukti he is not any kind of jiva at all, liberated or otherwise, for the option of mukti in Advaita Vedanta does not allow any jiva. The comment attributed to Sankara that you cited can only refer to the jivanmukta, and thus his position is not in agreement with any school of Vaisnavism.
Q. Are there not verses in Bhagavad-gita that describe the jiva as saguna Brahman?
A. What the Gita says is that the jiva is conditioned by the gunas. What it does not say is that the jiva is Brahman, who has become saguna. The jiva is a qualified purusa, whereas Brahman is not so. Brahman is not subject to conditioning under the influence of the gunas. After all, the jiva has also been described as prakrti in 7.5, prakrtim viddhi me param jiva bhuta. The jiva is para prakrti of Krishna, his jiva sakti. My edition of Bhagavad-gita will be useful to you in terms of understanding Gaudiya Vedanta on all of these points.
Q. I find that Sage Kapila has described jivatman as saguna Brahman. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, as he was teaching his mother about Sankhya, He said, etavan eva sankhyatah brahmanah sagunasya: “All these (elements) are known as qualified Brahman” (SB 3.26.15).
A. The famous Upanisadic statement ‘sarvam kalav idam brahma’ means that everything is Brahman. It is noteworthy that “everything” is not done away with, as it is in Sankara’s interpretation of this aphorism. In other words, the world does exist. It is not merely mithya (false), a superimposition on Brahman. It is one of the saktis of God, and in this sense it is also Brahman, as his sakti is one with him while simultaneously different. In this sense the world is also Brahman, saguna Brahman. But this says nothing about God himself, the avatara, being saguna Brahman in terms of Sankara’s interpretation. Nor does it speak of the jiva being saguna, as opposed to nirguna.
It should be noted in all of this that God can also be referred to as saguna, in that he does have qualities, but not in the sense that he has material qualities constituted of sattva that ultimately do not exist. The same is true for the jiva. How can the jiva have material qualities? It may be surrounded by material qualities and influenced by the gunas of nature, but it itself cannot be constituted of material qualities.
Q. I was very surprised to read (as you have written) that a jnani could be considered a mukta without having finished prarabdha karmas.
A. Here is the logic: The body itself is prarabdha karma. It is possible to be liberated within it, yet the prarabdha must play itself out. In the stage of jivan mukti, the jnani is liberated while still in the body. Thus he witnesses the prarabdha but is not affected by it. He is free from it, but the body is the prarabdha karma and he remains in the body until it has played itself out at death. Read the conclusion of the second chapter of Sri Gita. The prarabdha is the difference between jivan mukti and videha mukti. When the prarabdha is finished so is the body that it is made of it. Baladeva Vidyabhusana discusses this at some length in his Govinda Bhasya.
Q. I am of the opinion that Sri Krishna does not say in the Gita that para prakrti is jivatman. Please note that in verse 7.5 he says ‘jivabhuta’ (jiva-fied) but not ‘jivatmaka’ or even ‘jivatmabhuta.’ He described in the second chapter, in particular, that jivatman is eternal and never had any kind of other existence. This completely rules out jivatman once being para prakrti.
A. It is not that the jiva at one time was para prakrti and not at another. It is always para prakrti. It is constituted of the Lord’s jiva sakti. All saktis are prakrti. Jiva-bhuta refers to this jiva sakti. In using the singular, Krishna refers to the entire class of individual souls. Also see in Bg. 15.7, mamaivamso jiva-loke jiva-bhutah sanatanah: “The living entities in this world are my eternal fragmental parts.”
Visnu Purana states, visnu-saktih para prokta ksetrajnakhya tatha para avidya-karma-samjnanya trtiya saktir isyate: “Visnu possesses his superior internal potency as well as the potency called ksetrajna sakti. This ksetrajna sakti is also spiritual potency, but it is sometimes covered by the third, or material, potency called ignorance. Thus because of the various stages of covering, the second, or marginal potency (jiva sakti) is manifested in different evolutionary phases.” For more clarification on this you can study the sakti parinam vada theory of Gaudiya Vedanta.
Q. I found this verse in Sri Caitanya-caritamrtam by Kavi Karnapura: ittham sa eka iha sesapadam hi anadiratma sadaiva parisisyata evamevasopadhireva bhavati prakatadupadhermuktoranyatha sa khalu kascidapiha jiva. (Cc 6.67)
“In this way, that one eternal atman will remain as sesa (this one eternal atman will exist after the dissolution of the worlds). It is the Brahman with upadhi (guna). That emerges out of upadhi, otherwise that Brahman with upadhi is also called jiva.”
My contention is that this verse confirms that Gaudiya Vaisnavism embraces Sankara’s idea of saguna Brahman with regard to God and the jiva.
A. In the verse you cited, the word guna has various meanings. Vaishnavas don’t usually call Krishna “saguna Brahman,” but when they do, they don’t mean that God has material qualities, but rather spiritual qualities. This verse uses neither the word guna or brahma, but upadhi and atma, which although parallel concepts, are not necessarily identical. The verse must be interpreted in light of the entire siddhanta of Mahaprabhu.
Read on in the scripture of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Over and over again it is stressed in all of the biographies of Mahaprabhu and in all of the books of his followers that the jiva is an eternal unit of consciousness and that the plurality of souls in this world are not merely a result of Brahman being influenced by material nature. According to Gaudiya Vedanta, the world is a transformation of the sakti (maya sakti) of Brahman interacting with another of Brahman’s saktis (jiva sakti). Previously I cited evidence from Padma Purana regarding the saktis of God in relation to the Gaudiya understanding of the Gita (jiva bhuta maha baho yayedam dharyate jagat). In spite of this and the thousands of statements regarding the nature of jiva in Gaudiya literature, its Vedantic basis of sakti parinam vada as opposed to Sankara’s vivartavada, you continue to want to think that Mahaprabhu’s teaching supports the idea that the jiva is actually Brahman in every respect, a Brahman under the influence of material nature appearing as many souls. Mahaprabhu taught that the jiva and material nature are Brahman in the sense that they are saktis of Brahman and thus one with Brahman and different from Brahman simultaneously (acintya bhedabheda).
You are following the philosophy of Adwaita Vedanta whose conclusions are not the same as those of Mahaprabhu’s followers. I suggested that you read Tattva-sandarbha if you are truly interested in understanding the Vedanta of the followers of Mahaprabhu. Read his followers’ commentaries on the Gita as well. According to Vaisnava commentaries, the Gita speaks (beginning with 2.12) of a plurality of eternal souls:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
According to the Vaisnava commentaries, Gita verses seeming to speak of singularity speak of a singular class of souls. Not only Gaudiya Vaisnavas, but all Vaisnavas understand the scripture to be speaking of an eternal plurality of souls, whose individuality is not merely a product of association with material nature. Read the Gita commentaries of Madhva, Ramanuja and others. Your opinions drawn from the Gita are different from those of the followers of Mahaprabhu and all other Vaisnava acharyas.